Rebuilding a lost aeroplane factory

It was an interesting series of events which led me to working on this project. After approaching the local town Archive to express my interest in working on Fabric of Our Town, I in fact found myself working on a completely different type of commission. Funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the Wilfred Salmon and the First Blitz project was an ambitious attempt at educating the citizens of a little-known London town, Crayford, in their incredibly influential local history

To view the finished project please follow this link.

Home to a major Vickers Ltd (Later, Vickers-Armstrong) factory from the turn of the century onwards, the town played host to everything from the first proven powered flight to Maxim’s Machine gun, right through to the part manufacture of Battle-Cruisers! There was also an airfield – Joyce Green – in nearby Dartford on the Thames, used primarily to train recruits and test new designs.

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At its height, Vickers Ltd’s Crayford factory was the workplace of over 15,000 skilled British workers and a major employer in the area. The complex itself was one of the most substantial armaments factories in the World, arming everything from Machine-gun Riflemen to Super-Dreadnought Battleships. The image above, taken on Armistace Day in 1918, demonstrates this incredible scale beautifully; Crayford today is sadly a mere shadow of this.

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HIJMS Kongō; one of Vickers’ more notable exports, she would later be used against Britain and her allies in World War 2. 

However, sewing machines and ‘Pom-Poms’ aside, down the road from all of this was an experimental aeroplane factory in nearby Bexleyheath. Operated by Vickers, it was most notably responsible for the initial design and manufacture of the now legendary Vickers Vimy Heavy Bomber.

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A modern replica Vimy, based on the prototype designed, built and tested in Crayford. Note the larger than usual wing span.

It was during this time in its history that I was commissioned to represent the entire factory and surrounding area in 3D; alongside Joyce Green Airfield. Below is a link to my full video contribution in the project:

For those interested in the 3D process, it’s first important to note that I had very little to work on. The first stage, as with any large project, was to get a feel for the ‘lay of the land’. This was easy, as the land itself still exists…albeit under a modern Hotel! Nevertheless, once I’d mapped this area out I started digging for maps.

Bingo!

An original architect’s plan from a proposed redesign of the complex in the mid 1920s, courtesy of Bexleyheath Archives! The factory buildings were originally intended as temporary wartime structures, though they actually survived until the early 1970s so this remains a valid article for use. However, no photography survives from ground level of the complex and the single 1960s aerial photograph that does exist is too late and too distant to be of any serious use. Nonetheless, Vickers used a fairly standard formula in their architecture which I followed here as close as I could. Below is a link to a ‘SpeedModel’ video I made, demonstrating my process for modelling the ‘Stores’ Building to look as close to historical reality as possible. Note my use of the original ground-plan to line everything up before even considering laying the walls:

Certain buildings, especially those situated along the main road outside of the complex, took a little less research as, gracefully, correct period photography exists of this road. However, it was still challenging to work out the details of entire buildings from single photographic angles and since a video is worth far more than a thousand words, I also created a SpeedModel video demonstrating the creation of one such building:

Fast forwarding quite a fair amount, it eventually came time to create the animation itself. The addition of a functional Vickers Vimy Hispano Suiza engine was an exciting, if complicated at the time, prospect; which ultimately paid off dividends in bringing up the overall production quality. The animation of the propeller was done by playing on the human eye’s nature when it comes to fast motion; instead of making the prop physically turn fast, I made it alternate direction randomly to give the appearance of high speed.

Capture

Smoke and dust was created using basic compositing in DaVinci Resolve; this proved far easier than creating it physically in the model.

Finally, I shipped the whole thing from C4D’s Physical Renderer into DaVinci Resolve for cutting and grading.  I went for an unsaturated, gritty feel while also trying to maintain the image beauty in objects such as flora and building texture. Depth of Field was achieved in-renderer; however, I also made some adjustments to focus and ratio in Resolve…there’s nothing worse than an image which looks ‘perfect’ and computerised, afterall! Topped off with a 35mil ‘fine’ grain, it was ready to be sent for approval.

Overall, the feel of the complex was achieved here using a mixture of scratch-made assets and models alongside real period plans and photography. The true factory itself may never be seen again, and it’s hugely unlikely another project such as this will be commissioned again; at least without our life time. So my closing thought is that this may well be the closest anybody will come to seeing the birthplace of British heavy bomber history…and that’s something really special.

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All 3D Art is (C) Rob Nutter 2018. 

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